“Questions in the Snow” by Heidi Robertson January 20, 2017
During a February thaw a child and an old one walked along. Sometimes in silence, sometimes in song. In questions and answers. The child asked questions. The wise one supplied stories. Both questions and answers flowed freely like the brook. Sometimes their footsteps spoke a silent understanding. Sometimes they bounced retorts. The child’s questions generated wrinkly smiles and remembrances. The old ones stories did not always satisfy. They conversed with ease and familiarity. The short and long of their shadows held hands and skipped across the ground like the stick in the small one’s hand.
The toe headed child wore a bright red parka, a tousled hat and mittens bobbing on a string around his neck. Yarn balls dangled from a winter cap and boxed at his chin. All of these winter things played tag beneath his five-year- old frosty rapid breath. Two tiny snow shoes left a chickadee trail behind him in the snow.
The Grandmama, with fewer frills, wore black-pull on pants, a blue fleece shirt and woolen fur capped vest. She was obviously overdressed in this, and so she left her head mostly exposed. The elder unzipped the vest to show a narrow, thermal Mentholatum chest. She wiped her nose on fuzzy cuffs. Black, furry laced up boots were asked to run at times in keeping up with the child. Their footfalls danced in laughter.
Curving to the earlobe hung Grandmama’s hair. A strong angular Norwegian jaw hung hinged near high, punctuated, red cheekbones. Her neon hair exploded from a knitted ear-width earmuff headband, like corn silk. A shock of vibrant, brilliant white, and sturdy toned body gave a false sense of youth. She appeared years younger than you would think from a distance. She shone like the noon sun, just like the sparkling snow they stirred. The child kicked his taloned snow shoed feet as if it were powdered sugar or dry saw dust.
More crusty, unbroken snow lay ahead, gem-like, all white and zested at if just grated. It presented draped and adorned, all granulated like slivered crystals on an premature Easter bunny sugar egg. The confection was igneous and geodlike. This eggy animation pinned up outdoors in their hiking. If a photo had been taken, the picture would have captured the two stepping into still life. As if players in a giant Cadbury snow globe.
And so they left their gingerbread house. A Grandmama and small one set off to blaze a winter wilderness trail. In this way they walked and talked giving mother a short nap between chores and a nursing baby.
“Grandmama? Why does the dog across the river bark so?”
“Sometimes a voice must hear itself before it can be heard by others.”
“No. It wants to play.”
Several silent snow steps.
“Grandmama? Why do the magpies flap and squawk in the fir tree?”
Sometimes from a place of fear and dieing a diseased chest must cough, and fight for life before it gives its will to God.
“No they want to fly to God like Grandpa did.”
More silent snow steps.
“Grandmama, Why do branches float down the stream and disappear? Look! A beaver!”
“Sometimes we have to be brought down, for us to climb back up in gratitude.”
“You mean like mama being sick? And baby crying?”
More steps. Then pause for chickadee.
“Let’s fill our canteens.”
“But why is Mama so sad?”
“It’s like the empty canteen needing to be filled. The canteen must go down and under before it can be filled up. It must burp like baby and bubble it’s will to a more powerful river. Only then can it be filled.”
“No. I think mama is lonely for papa. When will his work be done?”
They fill their canteens and returned to the path.
“The water is good.”
“Grandmama, Let’s climb the hill and see the horses.”
“Grandmama? Why is the snow all broken here? All sharp and angled? It’s hard to walk through.”
“It is a gift. Much like the eggs from the dear chickens. Much like the shells when cracked and broken. Much like the whites when beaten to a stiffness. The snow, like egg whites must be broken too. Air added. Then baked before it can be made sweet and drinkable.”
“Snow can’t be baked!”
“Oh, yes it can. It melts.”
“Grandmama, I love the pies you bake. The meringue melts in my mouth.”
“But the snow is not meringue.”
“Why not, child? Aha, you can not answer my question!”
Several silent snow steps and stumbles.
“Grandmama, the horses have been running to the hay wagon. That’s all.”
“Grandmama? Why do you watch your feet while I look to the sky?”
Child. The Earth is firm and fertile underneath, and yet I must be careful not to stumble under old tired feet and winter snow. Why do you insist on looking up? Do you know why you do it?
“Grandmama, tell me why.”
“I’ll tell you why. It is because your big blue eyes came from the sky. A gift from God. In looking up, you’re in a way remembering Him.”
“No, Grandmama. The water and the sky are mirrors.”
“Yes. Sometimes you must be far away to see things much more clearly and in color. Child, because you are farther from the sky, you are drawn to it and can see things that I can not. I’m taller than you, and farther from the ground, and so I can see the bigger picture there.”
“See that mouse?! Hee hee hee.” He chases the mouse, nearly falling.
“Where? Ah ha. But you see everything my dear. My eyes are old and tired.”
“Grandmama? Why is it so far back to home?”
“Child. Your legs are short requiring many, many steps. My legs are old and bent. My lungs are tired like the smoke of an old man’s pipe. I trudge on slowly. But all the time I’m getting older, I’m getting closer to my home.”
“It would be closer, and we would be faster if mama had fresh rolls for us.”
“Perhaps she does my child.”
“And fresh churned butter! And milk from the cow! And cheese!”
“Yes. I think you are right. I think home WOULD feel closer if this were true. Ha ha.”
“It is true, Grandmama. This is good.”
They walked a little faster. A little closer, bumping into one another, hand in hand.
“Grandmama why do you tell me stories?”
“Why do you ask me questions?”
“I don’t know. Tell me.”
“Most simply, You ask me questions because you are young with lots of life in you. You have all your stories yet to make and to write.”
“I tell stories to you, dear, because I am old and all used up in living all of my stories. My stories are all I have left to give.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“It is true.”
“This is the lesson life has taught me, child. The only thing I know for sure, is that I know very little.”
“Grandmama, You know me.”
“Yes. Ha ha. I do know you, and you ARE very little. Ha ha.”
“What else do you know?”
“I know that where tears meet smiles we find ourselves in silence. Only here can our soul truly hear and be taught. Winter teaches living things to slow and to chill toward hibernation. And in the wind we hear the voice of God whisper “Be still and know I am God. There is no other in all your human making.” And from the glow of the Sun, we feel His love and Grace upon our hearts and faces.”
“Grandmama, If we can’t know, then who can?”
“Only God, dear. Sometimes we see a glimpse of Him in Art, or Nature, or in the animals we know and love.”
“Or in Grandmamas.”
“Thank you, dear.”
“Grandmama, The stories bring us closer to these things.”
“Yes, child. And to each other.”
“Is that why you tell me stories?”
“No, it’s not. It is because you love me, Grandmama.”
“Yes. So if you know all of this, why do you torment your old Grandmama with so many questions?”
“You know, Grandmama.” Grin.
“Yes, I think I do, Child. You think that as long as you keep asking, I will keep telling.”
“Yes, Grandmama. And we will be together.” They hug.
“Yes, my dear. And here we are, home again.”
After a wonderful winter walk, they were home again to a best loved cottage. To a trail of smoke circling a strong sure roof, and puffing from a roaring fire through a tall chimney. To the twist of a latch and turn of a door knob. To the creek of a heavy green wood stained door. To the warmth of a mother’s heart, and to the smell of homemade bread. Into familiar soft, encircling arms and to the laughter of a baby sister toddling on a clean wooden floor.
Grandmama brought up the rear, behind a trail of tiny tossed winter clothes and drippy boots. To home. And to more snowy questions thawing indoors.